So early in the new year, let alone a prophet of doom, I hate to say, “I told you so!” and “Don’t say I didn’t warn you!” But as I write this, the coronavirus cases around the world have crossed 308 million.
At the top of the chart is, of course, our oldest democracy, the United States, with over 61 million infections. The world’s largest democracy, India, with over 35 million cases, is placed at number two. Brazil, United Kingdom, and France follow, with over 10 million cases each. The virus seems, sadly, rather democratic, in that sense.
Way back on Oct. 25, in this very column, I had exhorted caution when everyone was exulting over India’s crossing the one billion vaccination mark: “The horror of nearly half a million deaths seems to be a bygone nightmare as people go about without masks and congregate during festivals without social distancing. … We do not have a clear idea of how long immunity from vaccinations will last. There is also the question of whether children below 12 should be vaccinated and how soon booster shots should be given to the already immunised."
Nothing like the flu
"Those who have suffered from Covid-19 swear that it is nothing like the flu. We don’t really need their warnings given that most of us in India have friends and relatives who have died during the pandemic or have returned literally from the edge of death. India cannot afford to be complacent at this crucial juncture. Every possible effort must be taken to prevent a third wave of the pandemic. The celebrations over crossing the 1 billion doses mark should not blunt the country’s vigilance against the tiny but lethal virus”.
Again, closer to the end of last year, on Dec. 27, I had cautioned that India was “still very much at risk. Especially given the Covid-19-inappropriate behaviour during Christmas and year-end revelries, reported from many parts of the country, including not wearing masks or maintaining social distance. Add to this the near-capacity occupancy in hotels, resorts, restaurants, shopping areas, and malls."
Just a year back, in January 2021, we crossed 100 million cases globally. Now we have added another 200 million to that tally in under twelve months. What this shows is that the virus is not only mutating, but spreading very rapidly, even if the malaise is less severe. Fortunately, the Indian government, both at the centre and the state levels, has now acted.
Restrictions on large gatherings
There are night and weekend curfews in most big cities, with restrictions on large gatherings and public events back in force. In addition, there are curbs on election campaigning till Jan. 15, very significant in terms of effective prophylactic health measures, considering several states, including Uttar Pradesh and Punjab are headed for their assembly polls next month.
The World Health Organisation released a statement on Jan. 6 reminding us that the coronavirus pandemic is not yet over and that we would do well not to underestimate its threat. Even a less deadly strain such as Omicron might prove life-threatening to those who are sick, infirm, immunity-compromised, or suffer from comorbidities. Being double vaccinated, indeed, provides very good protection, but it is not fool proof let alone fail safe.
Most of those who have contracted the Omicron variant have already their two shots. Some have, in addition, been previously infected and cured of the earlier Delta or other strains of Covid-19. This is not difficult to understand because the vaccines against older strains may not be effective against newer mutations, nor can reinfection or repeated infection, as in colds or influenza, be ruled out.
What should we do? First of all, try your best not to get Covid-19. If you do get it, try to recover at home, especially if the infection is mild. Not to crowd hospitals or overwhelm the health care system is really important. There are other people, more severely ill whether by Covid-19 or any other medical condition, who may need that hospital facility or bed far more than you.
Help curb COVID-19 spread
Also, if you do get Covid-19, it is your responsibility not to pass it on to others. Even five days of self-isolation would help curb its spread. In addition, get fully vaccinated if you haven’t. No more hesitancy. Booster shots for those who have had two already is also recommended. But above all, ensure that your immunity remains high. For this, pay attention to rest, nutrition, exercise, and, above all, stress reduction.
To return to how democracies are coping with the coronavirus, this is the first time in India’s history that campaigning will be restricted mostly to virtual mode, at least for a few days.
In fact, electioneering is likely to remain hybrid for some time, with the increasing importance of all kinds of media, old and new, cold and hot, mainstream and social, jostling for voters’ attention and competing with live campaigns and audience connects.
Those parties and candidates with the media and tech edge are likely to do better. The challenge is to break the digital accessibility barrier, caused mostly by poverty and illiteracy in a state like UP, to be able to connect with individuals and groups directly.
As of now, on that score certainly, the ruling BJP has an edge. As Yogi Adityanath bids for his comeback as UP’s Chief Minister, we must recognize that the coronavirus had upended our lives in many more ways that we dreamt of.
But, ultimately, it is up to the people of India to face and overcome this challenge as also to strengthen our democracy by exercising our franchise freely and fairly. We can do so by trying to vote for the best possible candidate and outcome, both in our specific constituency and for the state and the nation.
Less mob or mass mobilisations and less expensive election campaigns may, thus, be a blessing in disguise.